RECIPE for a Sam Shepard play: Take one bizarre story peopled with American archetypes, lace it with Western poetry, add a fistful of rollicking stage violence, and season liberally with essence of late-night B-movies.

At Source Theater's Main Stage, director Phil Setrin has carefully followed the recipe and serves up a tangy production of "Geography of a Horse Dreamer," a rarely-seen 1974 Shepard creation stuffed with visionaries, gangsters, cowboys and a mad scientist.

"Geography" opens with one of those startling theatrical sights that are Shepard's specialty: When we first see Cody, he is manacled spreadeagle to a bed in a seedy hotel room. Turns out that Cody, who has a gift for predicting the winners of horse races from his dreams, has been kidnaped from his Wyoming home by crooks who shuffle him from hotel to motel, never letting him know where he is or what day it is. Cody's been losing a few lately, though, and bossman Fingers has demanded that Cody switch to dreaming about dogs instead.

Those who care to look beneath the surface of Shepard's loopy tale may find a message about artists and the fragile and mysterious source of inspiration.

Director Setrin has a fine feel for Shepard's skewed, surreal humor, and conducts the proceedings with a head-on, no-holds-barred physicality. The alarmingly convincing fights were choreographed by Lory Leshin.

The acting is limited, but all concerned give the characters a high level of energy. John Patrick McCarthy executes the physically demanding role of Cody with acrobatic aplomb. Tomas Kearney is appealing as Beaujo, "the soft-hearted gangster type"; Lawrence Lerer, as Fingers, recalls Vincent Price in manner and appearance; and as Santee, the menacing thug who never dreams, Jim Hicks puts a mite too much whine in his snarl, but looks uncannily like Shepard himself.

On the technical level, "Geography," which deftly combines film, lighting and sonic effects, is another step up for Source. The Main Stage was seemingly made for Shepard plays. Jeffrey Cripps Morgan's set, with its dreaming screen, scrims and catwalks, frees the cinematic images of the play. And lighting designer Jennifer Garrett creates film noir shadows and prismatic rainbows during the dreaming soliloquys.

GEOGRAPHY OF A HORSE DREAMER -- At Source Theater Main Stage through May 24.